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The increasing man-animal conflict in the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border region of the Nilgiris recently sparked a debate on the two different approaches taken by the two states in handling the issue of a rogue wild elephant wreaking havoc with human lives and homes.

Pandalur Makhna 2 (PM2), a young tuskless male wild elephant, had been reigning terror on human habitations in the region for some time. It killed two people in Gudalur of Tamil Nadu, injured several others and damaged tens of houses in the Gudalur-Pandalur taluks while raiding human settlements for food.

The Tamil Nadu forest department officials began a search operation over weeks, and managed to capture the young wild elephant. They radio-tagged the animal after tranquilising it and — despite the protests of the residents of the affected taluks — relocated it to the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve on December 8 last year, allowing the animal to roam free again.

Is this the right way to deal with a killer elephant? This became the question among communities that live on the edge of the forest.

PM2 had a knack for identifying the storage rooms of homes in which cultivated rice was being stored, and he used to break in often to take away the sacks of grains. This earned him the moniker Arisi Raja (Rice King) among the villagers of Gudalur

PM2 had a knack for identifying the storage rooms of homes in which cultivated rice was being stored, and he used to break in often to take away the sacks of grains. This earned him the moniker Arisi Raja (Rice King) among the villagers of Gudalur. The animal had struck such fear in the hearts of the villagers there that nobody would raise a cry on seeing it, fearing they would inadvertently invite an attack from the wild elephant.

Living in fear of recurring raids by PM2 as he was released by the forest department back into the wild after his capture, villagers kept applying pressure on them to find a better solution. When repeated complaints of the inaction of the Tamil Nadu forest department reached the ‘top’, forest officials assured the villagers that the wild elephant’s movement would be closely monitored and that it would not be allowed to enter human habitats anymore.

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However, instead of deterring the animal from entering the villages, the forest department took the easy way out, merely warning the villagers against stepping out of their homes whenever the animal was tracked to near their localities. Thus, ‘Arisi Raja’ truly began moving about like a raja (king), whereas the human beings, who had to limit their movements for fear of the animal’s wrath, became mere ‘praja’ (humble subjects).

PM2, who earned the moniker Arisi Raja for his habit of stealing sacks of rice from the storehouses of farmers’ homes in Gudalur district, is being held in a truck after being captured and tranquilised

Nearly a month after TN officials captured and released the elephant into the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, PM2 was back, this time bang in the middle of Sulthan Bathery town in Wayanad district of Kerala — about 30 km from Gudalur in Tamil Nadu. It was the dead of the night, around 2 AM on January 6 this year, when the animal was seen roaming in the populous town. PM2 was caught on CCTV cameras trying to attack a speeding bus. A hapless man sleeping on the footpath had a narrow escape from its attack as well.

The Kerala Chief Wildlife Warden then issued an order on January 7 to capture and tranquilise the wild elephant.

Kerala officials had been keenly tracking the problematic elephant’s movements after Tamil Nadu shared data from the radio-collar with them. Finally, with the guidance of a 100-member team including wildlife experts, veterinarians, DFOs, Range Officers and others, PM2 was captured. Kerala’s minister of forests and wildlife himself landed in Wayanad to ensure that the animal is caught without delay and causing any casualty.

Instead of deterring the animal from entering the villages, the forest department took the easy way out, merely warning the villagers against stepping out of their homes whenever the animal was tracked to near their localities

The whole operation was conducted swiftly. Within three days, through round-the-clock efforts, the Kerala team had captured the wild elephant.

And here is where Kerala’s decision on what to do with the rogue elephant differed from Tamil Nadu. Kerala decided not to release PM2 back into the wild, and instead sent it to the elephant camp at Muthanga in Wayanad.

And now the tables were turned, with the ‘raja’ becoming the ‘praja’, confined to the elephant camp. PM2 of course did try his best to free himself of course. During the transit from the jungle to the elephant camp, when noted veterinarian Dr Arun Zachariah tried to administer tranquilising shots, the ‘Arisi Raja’ took his chance and tried to pull the man down into the truck. The doctor had a narrow escape.

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PM2 will be trained at the Muthanga camp, and gradually absorbed into the elephant patrol team, officials of the Kerala forest department said. Thankfully, the Tamil Nadu forest department has not raised a claim for the animal — and the farming communities of the Nilgiris can heave a sigh of relief.

Many criticise the approach of the Tamil Nadu forest department, which had released the elephant freely into the wild after radio-tagging it. Instead, they say, officials should have confined PM2 to a particular area within the jungle, by steadily monitoring its movements. It was especially imperative given that there is a rise in human-animal conflict, as the number of animals have grown beyond the carrying capacity of the jungle.

South Wayanad DFO A Shajana briefs the team before they set out on their mission to capture the rogue wild elephant PM2

Though the forest department conducts regular animal census, focusing on the elephant and tiger populations, it is reluctant to reveal the numbers fearing the public’s reactions. The signs of an overcrowded jungle have been felt in human settlements in the area for the last several years, as the wildlife threat which was earlier limited to hamlets adjacent to jungle zones, has now increasingly spread to towns.

By nightfall in Nilgiris, where small towns like Pattavayal, Devala, Devarshola, Pithrukad, Cherambadi have already been under threat from elephant herds, pedestrians keep off the roads. People hasten to return to their homes after the day’s work before twilight. And vehicles avoid the roads through these towns. The major towns, Gudalur and Pandalur — both taluk capitals — have been facing recurring attacks from elephant herds.

Earlier this month, the residents of Gudalur town witnessed a wild elephant taking a morning stroll. Casualties were avoided as the ‘human morning walkers’ were alerted about the elephant’s presence in the area on time. It was for the first time that an elephant had entered Gudalur town, though there have been incidents of herds crisscrossing the interior villages.


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